Making Sense of the Cross - Session 4

Substitution, Satisfaction, and Sacrifice



A second theory of atonement, which has been popular for much of the last thousand years, revolves around the idea that Jesus paid for, or was punished for, the debt of honor and justice that humanity owes God because of sin.


Anselm’s theory of Atonement (Satisfaction)

St. Anselm of Canterbury first articulated the satisfaction view as a modification to the ransom theory that was postulated at the time in the West. The then-current ransom theory of the atonement (which we discussed last week) held that Jesus' death paid a ransom to Satan, allowing God to rescue those under Satan's bondage. For Anselm, this solution was inadequate. Why should the Son of God have to become a human to pay a ransom? Why should God owe anything at all to Satan?

Instead, Anselm suggested that we owe God a debt of honor:

"This is the debt which man and angel owe to God, and no one who pays this debt commits sin; but every one who does not pay it sins. This is justice, or uprightness of will, which makes a being just or upright in heart, that is, in will; and this is the sole and complete debt of honor which we owe to God, and which God requires of us."

Having failed to render to God this debt, it is not enough to restore the justice originally owed, but the offense to God's honor must be satisfied, too.

"Moreover, so long as he does not restore what he has taken away, he remains in fault; and it will not suffice merely to restore what has been taken away, but, considering the contempt offered, he ought to restore more than he took away."

This debt creates an imbalance in the moral universe; God cannot simply ignore it according to Anselm. The only way to satisfy the debt was for a being of infinite greatness, acting as a man on behalf of men, to repay the debt of justice owed to God and satisfy the injury to divine honor. In light of this view, the "ransom" that Jesus mentions in the Gospels would be a sacrifice and a debt paid only to God the Father.


  1. Does Anselm’s explanation of why Jesus has to die on the cross make sense to you? What do you understand and/or like about it? What seems confusing or troubling?

  2. Are there times when you do, in fact, have to keep track of favors, insults, etc in a relationship? When? And when is is helpful not to do so?

  3. When have you felt like you were in someone’s debt? What was that like? When have you felt truly and fully forgiven? What did that feel like?

2 Corinthians 5:17-20

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.


  1. What stands out to you in Paul’s language? What makes and impression? What seems most clear or confusing?

  2. To be “reconciled” to someone is to get over your anger toward that person, to relinquish your claim or hold on that one. In Anselm’s theory, who needs to be reconciled to whom? That is, who is angry and needs to be satisfied?

  3. Based on this scripture text, who needs to be reconciled to whom? Who is angry and need to get beyond that? In light of Paul’s theology, what does it mean to you to be “a new creation”?

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